When I was barely more than a toddler, living in Manhattan, I learned a very big word: restitution. My parents, both survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, had not lived in this country too long. It was 1959. We lived in a large, old brick apartment building, where all our neighbors seemed to have numbers on their arms. I easily imagined that to be the norm, true of all people. One day, my parents received a letter in the mail. It said we would be receiving a small check each month: restitution. The German government was attempting to compensate Jews for the pillaging of possessions they had suffered. Of course they could not replace the 6 million murdered, but it was a gesture of reconciliation. It was the first I had learned of such a concept, attempting to repair broken trust or damage perpetrated. Although it was small consolation for my profoundly traumatized parents, it was still somehow gratifying and certainly much needed.
It was hard to believe when I heard on the news that it was the anniversary of the brutal murder of George Floyd. How has that time passed already? As an attachment theory-oriented therapist, I am still haunted by his cries for his mother in those last nine minutes of his life. “Mama, Mama…” As a somatic therapist who is regularly teaching clients about breath and a the calming power of intentional breathing, the words “I can’t breathe…” the same words gasped by Eric Garner in a similar police murder in 2014, have gained a whole new traumatic meaning. What have we learned in this ensuing time since Floyd’s tragic death? Does anyone remember Eric Garner? Will anything be significantly different for the poor, disenfranchised and of color in our country and the world, or will this be just one more episode, like a traumatic flashback, that recurs and persists and continues to perpetuate pain and enduring dysregulation and dysfunction?
As a relationship therapist, I am constantly trying to teach clients and often couples the power and magic of apology. Most do not really know how, having never heard a meaningful apology for harm done to themselves, and also living as we do, in a culture of blame. Many even view apology as an admission of defeat, so it is a humiliation to take responsibility for relationship repair. If made at all, apology is tinged with a self-canceling defensiveness, and so have no impact at all. In a memorable episode of the long discontinued television program, Sopranos, when one character, Christopher, while under the influence of heroin, sat on and suffocated his girlfriend’s beloved little dog to death. He shrugged his shoulders dramatically and exclaimed to his devastated girlfriend “Hey! I’m sorry!” Of course this had no meaning to the bereft young woman.
Eve Ensler, now known as “V” published a profound book that appeared in 2019: The Apology. Before that, I had found little literature of use on this crucial subject. For some years I have been gestating a book on the subject, which I still intend to write. But V’s view on the subject was the closest to my own that I have encountered yet. In it, more than 30 years after his death, she writes the letter of apology from her viciously abusive father that she had always hoped and longed to receive from him, but never had. It is written in his imagined voice, and in chilling detail he recounts and owns what he did to her over decades. Without defending it, he also tells the story of is own trauma, which does not excuse the harm he perpetrated, but somehow makes sense of it for her. Oh yes: the intergenerational transmission of trauma. The book affected me so deeply, that I bought dozens of copies to give to friends, in my quest to spread the word.
Again, most of my clients, survivors of trauma and neglect, have never heard an apology for what they endured. And clients ask me, “Wasn’t she doing terrible wrong? I am so angry! And I feel guilty that I am so angry. Could she just not help it? Was she just doing the best she could?” Both are true. But more importantly, how do we interrupt this insidious legacy? Restitution is a noble symbolic gesture, and certainly moves in the right direction, but it does not go deep enough. Or it is effective but not sufficient. As Janis Spring Abrams, who writes eloquently about the trauma of infidelity, “cheap forgiveness” skips the depth of pain and rage, and fails to restore or create true, reparative intimacy. We need to fully experience the unsavory emotions for the apology/forgiveness to “work,” and have impact.
I believe the way forward, besides transforming dysregulated brains with neurofeedback, and every way we can, is teaching the elusive practice of authentic empathy. A relatively recent concept, empathy only first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the Nineteenth Century. It is still poorly understood. And it stands in contrast to the simpler, more familiar concept of sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassionate and assumably understanding emotion on the other’s behalf, but still squarely from one’s own point of view. It is drawing on one’s own reservoir of experience to imagine the feeling of the other, attempting to speak from that. One can still remain lodged in one’s own narcissism, and even feel superior. Empathy however, is stepping if momentarily into the other’s world, and working at truly feeling how it is for them. Not to agree or “give them a pass” so to speak, but rather to make sense of how this could have happened. V’s father was the product of a horrific and unprocessed history. That by no means excuses wrong perpetrated! But rather makes sense of what is otherwise incomprehensible and unforgiveable. And forgiveness benefits, more than anyone else, the forgiver. V felt tremendous relief. It did not retrieve lost years, and the protracted storm of agony, or the thousands of helpful and unhelpful therapy dollars, but provided a sea change of direction. Granted, these perpetrators never chose to do their own work, which is part of what makes the questions complex unanswerable.
In cheese-making, the essential first ingredient is the starter culture, an interesting and unintended double entendre. The culture is an organic compound that stimulates or catalyzes the milk to “ripen” changing its chemistry to make it receptive to the agent of transformation, which miraculously transforms the milk from liquid to delicious solid. A certain amount of time is required for this magic to transpire, for the cheese to “mature.” For the cheese-maker, patience is more than a virtue. I believe that empathy and the teaching of empathy, better yet, a culture of empathy, is an essential first step in breaking chains, of both oppression and intergenerational transmission of trauma and neglect. And of course continuing to stir the vat!